By Trevor Wilson
American Christianity as we know it is changing more rapidly than it ever has before. Small, century-old churches are passing their inheritance to young, rapidly growing corporate mega-churches. The classical music of pianos and choirs are being dubbed over with guitars and drums. Churches hide their denominations and affiliations, using ambiguous one-word titles like “Catalyst” or “Crossroad”. Change is happening; not for better or for worse, but because it is inevitable throughout the course of time.
The question now is: where are we going? Where are we headed?
This uncertainty extends beyond Christianity and into the entirety of American culture. The past year in America, there has been a palpable sense of fear in the average American, because of the recent election and because we don’t know what lies ahead.
It might be comforting to know that people have predicted this rapid change for some time now. Many theologians, historians and philosophers have coined the term “emergent,” “emergence,” or “emerging” movement to attempt to define what has been happening in world culture, particularly over the last 30 years or so. The change is in accordance to the cyclical pattern that history has revealed to us. Major cultural and religious shifts, particularly in the West, have systematically occurred roughly every 500 years: the fall of Babylon, the birth of Christianity, the Fall of Western Rome, the Great Schism, the Reformation, and now.
Each of these historical events has included expansive changes in communication, scientific and mathematical breakthroughs, theology and political readjustments. Religious scholar Phyllis Tickle spent much of her later life discussing our current movement and comparing it to those of the past. She summarizes the sentiments of each movement into one question: where now is our authority? Tickle suggests that in our current movement, Christianity is moving away from biblical authority and into an age of spiritual authority. (See her books Emergence Christianity and The Age of the Spirit)
As we move into the emerging age of the spirit, it should bring some comfort to know exactly what this means for our future. What is spirit? What is Holy Spirit? Our concept of spirit, and even our translation of it in the Bible, is derived from the Hebrew word ruach. It is something that can be felt and not seen, which also makes it oftentimes translated to breath or wind. Ruach is found to be present in creation (Genesis 1:2). It is the Divine feminine, as some theologians describe it, and it is perceived as the breath that brought forth all life (6:17, 7:15, 7:22). Ruach is life; ruach is liberty; ruach is freedom; ruach is holy.
Ruach is also uncertainty. It’s mysterious. After all, it’s what can be felt and not seen.
Oftentimes the concept of spirit is attributed to that feeling when a special worship song plays or when someone feels compelled to do something unusual. We cannot deny the fact that there is mystery, spirit, breath, whatever you call it, present in our lives and all around us. The key, though, is for us to be mindful of the daily mysteries we experience and the things we describe as spirit. Why do we feel emotional when that one song plays? Why do feel drawn to act a certain way or say a certain thing? The age of the Spirit is not a time to excuse mindless thought and action. It is a time for deep introspection, to contemplate on ruach, our breath, and discover our purpose for life.
Ruach is in all living things. We love to remember the Holy Spirit at Pentacost that comes to all believers of Christ, but we forget that ruach was given to all living things back in Genesis. This significance is two-fold. First, the ruach in Genesis is not something external that we pray to come upon us but is something internal that is discovered deep within us. To know ruach is to know ourselves fully. We often live life unconscious of the things we do not know. It’s why we’re shocked when we hear about news that happened the day before. The same is true of ourselves. It’s why we’re shocked when we realize that we unconsciously drove all the way to work on a Saturday morning. If we want to feel closer to the Holy Spirit, the we need to become conscious of the things we do not know. We need to begin to step from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence and see where that leads us.
Second, the ruach in Genesis is given to all of God’s creation. I find it most peculiar how Christians often claim that God created the world but say that only a prayer or confession of belief will make you a son or daughter. Our world today has become a dangerous combination of divisive and diverse. History shows that these cyclical cultural shifts are plagued with violence and destruction. We have an opportunity in the age of the Spirit to recognize the breath of life and choose to honor and respect it. Our commercial media loves to profit off fear and hate, and they do so by dehumanizing and scapegoating. Lives are devalued. The Spirit is forgotten. I hope this negativity bias is unmatched by hope, compassion and understanding in the age to come.
To know the Holy Spirit is to see the value of life in others.
We feel ruach when we pray, when we sing, when we dance, and when we smile. Now it’s time to see it. Now it’s time to be it. Let us welcome in the age of the Spirit. Too long ruach has been ignored and neglected, to the point that it has nearly been forgotten. There is a lot of uncertainty in our future, but if we begin to acknowledge the ruach present deep within ourselves and others, then it might just be the change needed for our world. It might just be the revival hoped for. Hatred will be useless, division obsolete, and violence inconceivable. The age of the Spirit has come, will you welcome it?
Trevor Wilson is a CBF Leadership Scholar completing his third year at Claremont School of Theology in Los Angeles, Calif.